Monday, June 30, 2008

Hell hath no fury, really

Sometimes, Richard Gasquet makes me feel like I'm trapped in a really bad relationship. I follow him religiously. I brag about his backhand. I even wear Izod shirts again (for the first time since the mid-1980s) because of Gasquet. And yet, he keeps disappointing me, standing me up for a dinner date, leaving me at the altar, or whatever other euphemism reflects the sheer disappointment he brings to my life every tennis season.

After learning that the Gasquet-Andy Murray match was being aired on ESPN2 today, I ditched work in the middle of a heated argument about prairie chickens to catch the match. Again, just as it happened last year (and the year before and the year before) like a Guatemalan peasant rubbing a medal of some local saint, I sat there doe-eyed while the college students around me cheered on Murray. "No, really, he'll come'll see...." I was waiting for a three set win, a trounce like the one he gave the loathesome Andy Roddick last year in the round of 16. Scroll back to every other Wimbledon I've witnessed in Missouri and you'll see the same thing: my heart is with Gasquet.

Two sets in, and Gasquet was winning. He lighted across the court plying his mellifluous sluice, lunging for shots at the net, but he fell apart in the third. Murray played competently. Actually, because my loyalties run deep, it's hard to admit that I actually respect Murray's game, but I do. Of course, I can't look anyone in the eye and say it.

Gasquet failed again, but not without a fight. I really want to be able to sit back and mutter blithely, "no, that's cool, Murray's fine..." but after Murray's obnoxious screaming after every game and that ridiculously American gesture of flexing his bicep after he won the match, I hope Nadal literally wipes the floor with the guy. I guess at least I don't have to choose between Nadal and Gasquet again. Anyway, there's always the U.S Open.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

You pick

"Patience, young grasshopper," Alyssa tells me after listening to me whine about the sad state of my community garden. It's late June and I had expected to bring bundles of zinnias to my colleagues by now. I have a few green tomatoes, first buds on my squash, and my pole beans are only now starting to twine around the poles. I had nothing to complain about to my kid sister; her Idaho garden, after all, received snow a couple of weeks ago, yet she manages crops of carrots, chard, lettuces, and potatoes. She's much more patient than I am on all accounts.

If the Columbia Farmer's Market provides any indication of how farms are faring in the Ozarks, my measly little loess-based patch of land is anomalous. Tables of berries, chard, onions, zucchini, mung bean sprouts, bok choy, lettuces, tart cherries, dill, Thai basil (and so on) encourage me to shell out gobs of money every Saturday to support local farmers. The bright green leaves pouring out of my refrigerator all week are, indeed, a welcome sight. My garden will come around one of these days, if my compost is as healthy as it looks and I'm patient with our cool, wet climate.

So, for the past few Saturdays, I've rushed down the street to the market without brushing my hair to score pints of blueberries and cherries. I can eat my weight in berries and decided I should carve out my Sunday afternoon at a you-pick berry farm just outside of Columbia. To my dismay, the Little Cedar Berry Farm is now closed to you pickers and the other Boone Co. farm doesn't grow blueberries. But scattered throughout the Ozarks, one can spend as little as $1.50 for an entire pound of blueberries, but only at you-pick farms.

I called several sites this morning on my search for open blueberry farms. A complete listing of all Missouri you-pick farms can be found here, but make sure you call each farm before you go; hours and availability are not accurately listed on the website for each season. The following are currently open for blueberry season (directions and phone numbers can be found here).

LaClede Co., near Bennett Spring State Park: TCB Blueberry Farm, open July 1

Greene Co., in Rogersville: Sunshine Valley Farms

Moniteau Co., near Jamestown: Missouri Highland Farm

Pulaski Co., on Hwy. D outside of Dixon (home of a great bluegrass festival): Meyer Tree and Berry Farm

St. Charles Co., near St. Louis: Wind Ridge Farm (open July 1)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Climbing milkweed

Several years ago, during my first foray into the Ozarks, a young seasonal naturalist asked me if I had a brown colored pencil buried somewhere in my messy desk. Assigned the mundane task of coloring an extensive collection of lovely wildflower sketches for the education of park visitors, she employed red, blue, purple, and several shades of pink pencils. But she couldn't find the brown one. Spring and early summer in the Ozarks usher in three distinctive brown flowers: pawpaw (Asimina triloba), trillium (Trillium sessile), and climbing milkweed (Matelea decipiens). The young naturalist grouped the wildflower drawings not by bloom period, but by color, shuffling the interesting brown flowers to the bottom of the stack.

Climbing milkweed grows throughout the Ozarks in rocky streamsides, glades and moist woods. A member of the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae), it plays host to monarch butterflies and other insects dependent on the milky sap members of the family. I stumbled across several blooming plants recently at the bottom of a dolomite glade, in a seepy area thick with ironweed and crownbeard. Those moist toeslopes of glades, where water percolates through the rock to an almost impermeable layer, harbor a wealth of biodiversity. Plants one normally associates with streamsides or fens (juncus, scirpus, eleocharis, sedges) grow in these specialized areas. Climbing milkweed just happens to be one of the more charismatic ones.

After the brown flowers wither, large round seedpods containing feathery seeds form. Unlike the milkweeds that grow on the roadsides like Asclepias syriaca and even A. tuberosa (all lovely in their own right), climbing milkweed doesn't grow as readily and abundant. The heart shaped leaves and hairy stems are unmistakable in the field and, like every other milkweed, would really make a lovely addition in a horticultural setting.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Gasconade River Hills

It's pretty unfair, really. Ever since Doug arrived in Missouri, I've tried to show him the best of the best, the unadulterated natural sites that made me fall in love with Missouri. I'm lucky to have colleagues who know every inch of Missouri and can show me the nice parts. I hang out with people who seldom visit cut-over woods and any site that supports fescue. But it seems that every time I try to show Doug some great place that I've heard about (or witnessed several years previously), it's overrun with exotics, grazed heavily, or in some other, general, sense degraded and lousy. What's unfair is that he's shown me the beauty and splendor of Oregon--the Cascades, the Coast Range, Opal Creek, Silver Falls, etc.--and I have yet to show him somewhere in Missouri that will make him catch his breath.

The Gasconade River Hills, an area of steeply dissected terrain rich with dolomite glades and narrow valley bottoms, rests south of I-70 just west of St. Louis. The Gasconade River is well above flood stage as it fans out through the bottomland woodlands in Osage County; but the smaller rivers like the Big and Little Piney Rivers are each a mere foot above flood stage, which is enough water to negate the possibility of dragging your canoe through chert gravel. The Big Piney flows primarily through lands managed by the National Forest, but also passes acres upon acres of pasture. Unlike any other float on the Big Piney, this one introduced me to cows hanging out in the river and deeply eroded banks that slough off soil with every sprinkle of rain.

"Huh. Looks like the Current River. Or the Grand Canyon..." he announced as we turned the corner in the Big Piney River to meet a big white cow and a streambank stripped of all vegetation. I told him the Big Piney would be different from the Current. He would see dolomite bluffs, pine trees, no powerboats, few canoers flashing their breasts. The Big Piney, as far as I could remember, was pretty nice a few years ago. I floated it once before, in the middle of the night, by the light of the full moon. We portaged around Boiling Spring for a bonfire and continued paddling, laden as we were with wine and food cooked over an open fire, until 2 am. But I don't remember it looking as bad as the Current.

The disappointing land and riverscape of the lower Big Piney, completely devoid of stately pines and bluffs, wouldn't be so upsetting if I hadn't dragged Doug to the northwest region at the Iowa border just the day before to spend several hours around cornfields and crummy prairie on a search for the rare-to-Missouri prairie fringed orchid. We saw lots of cottontail rabbits, lots of exotic sweet clover, lots of blacktop and the charming, interesting members of the Missouri Native Plant Society. Oh, and I was able to point out the native yucca perched on a loess hill. But on the whole, he spent the day (that he would have rather spent doing a million other things)hanging out in crummy woods that should be prairie. Nevertheless, he made the best of it, laughing at my colleagues and their really odd demeanors.

A day later, and back to the Ozarks. I found a good indicator of healthy water quality (something they desperately lack in the Central Dissected Till Plains region of Missouri) in members of the family Plecoptera and Odonata. I saw riverbanks lined with a thick Scirpus and an Eleocharis. I'd never seen riverbanks lined with Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia sp.) before the Big Piney. Nor had I seen an entire understory of inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latiflora)in a riparian area. Thanks to my trusty colleague, I learned that the sea oats were a relic of timber harvest and subsequent sediment load that moved into the Big Piney valley.

Parts of the Big Piney are great. Some small sections of the Current are nice, too, I hear. I was delighted to see life with every bend in the river. I'm posting a small Orconectes, a Plecoptera, a lovely dragonfly, and the astonishing view from my canoe. As I head into the White River Hills for the next week, entrenched in 90 degree weather, I'll think often of canoe trips and the accessible cold water.

While I tried to show Doug a pristine, peaceful river, I instead brought him to a degraded, sedimented, lousy stretch of the river that used to provide me comfort. Now. having seen the best of the best, these areas aren't even worth mapping. Once my friend from Oregon finds the perfect water-landscape-rock combination that gives him emotional satisfaction in the Ozarks, as close as it is to "home" for him, I'll let you know. Of course, you'll have to find it, emotionally, for yourselves.

Flood stage

My colleague asked me earlier this morning: "are they doing it to you, too?" He lamented fielding calls all weekend from anxious friends located outside of Missouri, all panicking over his well being. Yes, the Missouri River is really high. Yes, locals are fishing for gar in the corn fields. Indeed, the Mississippi is cresting much lower than expected, sparing towns like Cape Girardeau and my former residence from sediment-laden waters.

I spent the weekend canoeing an Ozark stream (a whole 6 inches above normal) and checking out loess prairies at the Iowa border. Having had my phone turned off for a day, I open it this morning to 28 voicemail messages and 19 text messages. I haven't listened or read any of them because, thanks to my mother's "..I've been worried sick!" call that I unwittingly answered yesterday, I imagine all of the messages refer to the cresting floodwaters and my personal well-being. Yes, it's terrible that many homes and towns north of St. Louis were flooded, but, no, Columbia is not underwater and is under no threat of flooding. (I'm sending my mother a wall map of Missouri to consult when she insists on watching the news. I recall the same panicky calls when a boy was abducted from a WalMart 280 miles away.) Of course, the calls and emails and text messages wondering after my safety are all very sweet...

More pressing is that Wimbledon started today. I left work as soon as my daily duties were completed (1 pm) and watched Serena lumber across the court and mutter, "why's too far." Maybe my cell phone is actually full of tennis trivia and best wishes for Nadal.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Spigelia marilandica

When I lived in New Orleans, I amassed a nice collection of Louisiana's natural history books. None of the books are nearly as extensive and well-researched as their fellow bookshelf mates, my Missouri natural history books, but they represent a valiant effort nonetheless. Just as I did back home, I flip through one Louisiana book somewhat regularly, "Rare Plants of Pine-Hardwood Forests in Louisiana," published by our hook-and-bullet agency, the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries.

I used to pine over certain plants back home, always wanting to see wild geranium, Louisiana blue star, whorled pogonia in the woods, all plants listed as rare in the state. I searched for several years in the small, disjunct tracts of high quality woodlands and savannas for the live counterpart to the glossy full-page pictures. I never saw most of the plants in the book, including the stunning Indian pink (pictured). Well, until I moved to Missouri.

Louisiana's natural communities are, on the whole, poorly managed. Sure, the Forest Service burns Kisatchie pretty regularly and the Nature Conservancy has restored thousands of acres of high quality ecosystems. But Louisiana's woodlands have seen better days. Fire suppression, timber harvest and grazing have all but ruined the state's natural heritage. There's hardly a glimmer of a diverse future under current management regimes. Without the same bright vision that certain resource managers in Missouri possess, Louisiana's woods will continue to decline in quality. It's a testament to landscape management when 95% of Louisiana's rare plants are stable throughout their range.

So, fast forward to the Current River Hills, a deeply dissected region of the Ozarks that is particularly cherished by paddlers. Wild geranium grows prolifically here, even in degraded mesic woodlands. Shooting star, "very rare in Louisiana, known exclusively in older relatively mature, open woodlands," flourishes throughout the region. And Indian pink, the flower pictured on the cover of my "Rare Plants" book, grows along streamsides in rich, moist soils in the Current River Hills.

I had never seen the plant before. I knew exactly what it was, the tall bright red and yellow flower, as we zoomed past the low water crossing lined with it. If the accompanying botanists knew that we stopped the vehicle so I could fulfill a wish derived in Louisiana, they'd probably laugh. So, with Indian pink, I've now seen almost 80% of the rare-to-Louisiana plants in the Ozark Highlands, and none of them are even of conservation concern in Missouri.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Liver, onions and a pint of Guinness

Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voivedoing his highness to make himself interesting for that old Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort


Happy Bloomsday...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Flip side

"Molly barks," the groomer muttered to me Friday morning. No "hello, your wonderful dog has been groomed and is ready to be picked up," just a surly complaint. I bet they put her in a cage. Molly's never been in a cage and likely felt really uncomfortable. She doesn't bark unless she's uncomfortable. She barks when she wants food, to go outside, to get on the bed, and if she simply wants things to go back to the way they were. She doesn't like change.

Earlier this week, I wanted to be like Molly. I simply wanted to let out a big "rowf" to let my colleagues know that I was uncomfortable. I didn't want to be where I was, a lousy glade in the Current River Hills. Instead of barking, I did what I always do when I'm somewhere I don't want to be: I walk away. I try to leave. The day before, I had spent almost 2 hours at the lovely glade pictured below. Rich, diverse, picture-worthy. But in an effort to find the rare-in-Missouri Eriogonum longifolium, a motley crew of us set out for this crummy glade outside of Eminence, Missouri to find it. Historically, the densely hairy little glade plant grew there in abundance; in fact, the lousy glade was one of the only sites for the plant in the state. We hiked through degraded dry chert woodlands that desperately needed to be burned and ended up in a glade so scarcely populated by plants, it looked like it had been grazed as early as that morning.

It took about 2 minutes to find the plant (pictured), a curious member of the Polygonum family. The wide, strappy basal leaves were densely covered in fine hair, as was the stalk and the flowering structure. I took pictures, made sure everyone saw it, and I was ready to go back to the truck to embark on nice, high quality regions of the Current River Hills. The experience in the degraded glade made me realize that I've given the Ozarks an unfair shake. I tend to show only the best sites, the ones that haven't been overgrazed, the ones under current management. So, tonight I'm sharing photos of what a large part of the Ozarks looks like. The premier sites that I profile are just that, premier, not ordinary. Millions of acres of Missouri's Ozarks are in desperate need of help. It's inspiring, sure, when I look out at places that need help and imagine my own diligence applied to them. But sometimes, it's overwhelming.

Because the rest of the group wanted to hang out at the crummy glade to look at calamint (the overriding ground cover, pictured) and search (in vain) for other conservative plants, I distracted myself by thinking of ways to manage such a glade. There's really not enough fuel to carry a fire, so a simple little fire wouldn't really help (unless the lucky guy with a driptorch did what I did at another lousy glade: set each individual patch of grass on fire, walking through naked chert rubble all along.). Removing some of the encroaching trees might help? But, really, you'd have to go back to the 1920s and 1930s and shoo off all the cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats.

After ambling into the adjacent woods (only to find such generalist plants as Virginia creeper), I finally confronted the group of botanists. "Can we go?" I said anxiously. I may as well have said "Rowf!" as they pondered over a grass that shows up everywhere in Missouri. We finally hiked back and arrived at the line of agency vehicles after arguing over some Desmodiums. I abruptly turned to my colleague and asked, plaintively, "can we see something good? That glade made me sad."

As we left, we encountered a little fen that had Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), known in Missouri only from the southern Ozarks. The pretty little red and yellow flower was in full glory. I could feel my soul restoring itself. I met a few more fen plants and set out for a Butler Co. site I had been encouraged to visit the whole time I was in southeast Missouri. I heard it was the only site that could possibly contain the much sought after bird voiced treefrog, unrecorded in Missouri.

I walked slowly through typical degraded Ozarks woods to get to the site and then entered another world. The earlier part of the day was erased from my memory. I beheld a landscape so incredibly moving that I was rendered (likely for the first time in my life) speechless. I thanked my colleague for taking me there and had to catch my own breath.

So, for now, see, a lousy glade, the coveted plant (the hairy thing not in flower), Coreopsis palmata (yellow flower), and Indian pink from the fen. I don't really even know how to tell you about the incredibly transcendent place that is nestled in the crummy woods of Butler Co. I'm still having dreams about it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Meramec River Hills

"Yay for this site!" my bushy haired friend exclaimed as he jumped into the passenger's seat of Jane's sturdy red truck. I think he spoke for all of us on the birding trip this week when he proclaimed that the glade we had just hiked through was hard to beat. We spent the morning in a lousy old field (currently being managed for quail and seriously devoid of diversity) looking for Henslow's sparrows and grasshopper sparrows. No luck in the old field, so we drove several miles to a glade looking for glade species. We all ambled through about 20 yards of high quality dry chert woodlands and met the benchmark. The dolomite glade we visited in an effort to hear Bachman's sparrows, prairie warblers and Eastern wood peewees turned out to be the richest glade I've ever seen in Missouri. My fellow birders, some great natural historians in the mix, were equally impressed.

As I looked out over the acres of pink Echinacea simulata in full bloom, my brilliant colleague explained the glade's geology: The Meramec River Hills "are like walnut ice cream. The dolostone erodes from the top of the ridge, leaving behind a thick layer of chert which is perched on top of dolomite bedrock." Surrounded by dry chert woodlands, these glades are interspersed with gnarly old post oaks and knobby dolomite outcroppings. More importantly for the group, the glade hosted prairie warblers, yellow throated warblers and chipping sparrows. More importantly for me, it was a midmorning of firsts.

I've traversed acres upon acres of glades. I've seen crummy ones, quality ones, some that have been wrecked by echinacea root diggers, others that have been grazed so much that they didn't have any forb diversity whatsoever. But I've never seen the poster child for glades in Missouri: the Eastern collared lizard. Exquisitely patterned, large in size with the fascinating habit of running on hind legs, Eastern collared lizards are one of Missouri's most collected reptiles. Glades around St. Louis have been so ravaged by the St. Louis Herpetological Society members that they no longer even possess populations. A fellow birder spotted this one sunning on a big dolomite outcropping. Excited, I walked slowly towards the gravid female when a colleague muttered, disgustedly, "yeah, but the population is introduced." A state agency transported lizards from one glade to this one to increase the opportunities for wildlife viewing. So, really, my first view of an Eastern collared lizard was, essentially, in a zoo. Oh well.

The timber rattlesnake, however, was not introduced. Tucked under a big slab of dolomite, I could see and hear the namesake tail rattling in an attempt to repel us. Poor snake, he didn't realize that among our bird watching group was a 50-ish year old who instinctively grabs a prying stick when he finds a snake under a rock. After several failed attempts to gently cajole the monstrous snake from his hiding spot with a desiccated oak branch, my colleague gave up and set out westward in an attempt to locate another one while the rest of us listened to a blue grosbeak perched high in a post oak. I saw the tail rattle and the beautifully colored sides of a timber rattlesnake. That's enough for now. I was just happy to be on the glade.

So, I'm attaching pictures of the dolomite glade, an Eastern collared lizard, ground plums, these tasty little morsels that burst in your mouth like a grape, and finally, this exquisitely colored grasshopper. Notice the incredible blue flashing on the leg. Underneath he's orange. I trust one of the fine entomologists I know will let me know who this is...I was surrounded by botanists and birders, with not an entomologist in the bunch.

I took almost 100 pictures at this site, which was a good thing because I spent the rest of the week, barring an hour, at really lousy sites where my camera stayed in my pack for most of the day. Yay for this site, indeed.

Friday, June 06, 2008

(Driving gratitude)

There's this great Latin construction for expressing gratitude. They don't use the word for "offer" or "give," but "drive" (gratias ago). It's a very active verb, to drive thanks to someone. So, I actively drive thanks to all of you who have expressed sincere wishes for my little dog's health. Compassion towards little dogs is one of the most cherished virtues in my book.

Molly returned to the cold, metal table today at the veterinarian's office following an entire week of being prodded with needles and filled intravenously with fluids. She had to sit still a lot. She whimpered at the mere pinch of the scruff of her neck, several moments before the needle pierced her skin. She's changed her diet to this gray chicken stock-based food (unfortunately, I don't think her new food contains any horsemeat. I always felt like I was helping the landscape by feeding her horses.). She was terribly sluggish all week, unable to climb steps, downright cranky. Who wouldn't be? Add to it the daily thunderstorms brought about by hot, Gulf air meeting the low pressure from the west. Her arthritis was bugging her. She hated the thunder and lightning. And she had needles crammed into her skin every night. I thought I had sent my dog to an early, uncomfortable death by her twice monthly eggs Benedict.

Around noon, I learned that her kidneys are still functioning and will continue to do so under strict dietary restraints. She's started rowfing at the neighborhood kids and dogs again. Next up is a trip to the groomer to get that hot winter coat off. I don't have air conditioning in my house or car, so she regularly camps out in front of the single fan. All she needs is mustard. But I'll give her a few days reprieve from being manhandled by people she doesn't know or appreciate. And yes, we've already started scheduling canoe trips, camping trips and plenty visits to the woods that she cherishes as much as I do.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Ashe's Juniper

The park naturalist must have thought I was dumb. On a recent visit to the White River Hills, my esteemed colleague and I joined him and his assistant on a hike through a 560 acre burn unit. Acres of recently burned glades, all awash in fresh, bright green grass stood out in the landscape. We traipsed from glade to glade examining the positive effects of fire: wild hyacinth, Mead's sedge, hoary puccoon. I was pleased with the results of the fire. And then, we turned the corner, hiking up to an unburned glade. I asked the naturalist why he didn't burn it (and if he minded if I helped him burn it that day). "Oh, you know, I don't want to burn it. I just want to see what happens."

Funny thing, we all know what happens when glades remain unburned for 5 or 6years: biodiversity drops, cedars move in. When I reminded him of this basic fact of landscape management, his reason for not burning the glade slapped me in the forehead. There it was, in plain view, at the edge of the glade, a big, gnarly Ashe's juniper. He didn't burn the glade because he wanted to protect the Ashe's juniper. Anyone who might have read earlier posts may have gleaned that I rather vehemently oppose the concept of land management for single species.

For example, I don't think we need to build little ponds on ridgetops to "help" salamanders. Ponds installed specifically for amphibian breeding purposes are essentially a form of amphibian farming (ponds don't naturally exist on dry ridgetops anyway...). Likewise, we don't need to stop natural processes like fire in a fen complex to protect the Hine's emerald dragonfly. And we don't need to cram thousands of sycamores and boxelders into our already wooded riparian zones to make brushier habitat for the cerulean warbler. If the Hines' emerald is supposed to be in a fen (a fire dependent landscape), then the federally listed species should be able to deal with fire. If the cerulean warbler needs brushier habitat, it shouldn't be in the Ozarks where fire traditionally burned down to the rivers, keeping the riparian zones somewhat open. Likewise, if the Ashe's juniper is supposed to be on a glade (another fire dependent landscape) then the cedar look-alike should be able to withstand the low intensity fire that slowly crept across the 560 acres earlier this year. Since the whole glade didn't burn because of this single species, the whole glade will suffer the effects. No Mead's sedge, no Leavenworthia, a scattering of wildflowers. But the park naturalist saved a single tree.

Part of me thought it was really sweet how he wanted to protect the tree (while lying to me about his motives). Maybe he just didn't want to seem sensitive. Ashe's junipers are only known from three counties in Missouri, all located in the White River Hills. The tree is common in the state of Texas, found predominantly on the Edwards Plateau. Ashe's junipers also grow in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and southward into Mexico and Guatemala. In Missouri, it's found on dolomite bluffs, glades, and on the limestone glades of the White River Hills. A large, healthy population thrives around the Table Rock Lake area (Branson). So, if it's found on glades, it should be able to withstand fire. Right?

Ambling out of the burn unit that day, park naturalist far behind us, my esteemed colleague muttered to me, "the reason Ashe's juniper is there is because the area didn't see fire for 50 years. It's a relic of fire suppression, really." We see signs of fire suppression all over the Ozarks. In an effort to reintroduce the natural process, we prescribe fire, sure, but safe, small, low intensity little things that can't kill cedars or other emblems of fire suppression. No, it takes a big, raging fire to kill off the sugar maples that invaded our oak hickory woodlands in the past 50 years, the cedars that moved into the glades, the hackberries into our bottomlands. Since hot crown fires are seldom if ever prescribed, this old, gnarly tree would have been able to withstand the creeping fire that the rest of the glade complex witnessed. Oh, some of the lower branches may have been damaged by fire, but to kill off cedars or other relics of fire suppression on a glade (without chainsaws), one must send a raging headfire into the area, a fire that literally engulfs the trees. Pictures I posted earlier from the limestone glades of Jefferson Co. illustrated the results of a wicked hot fire: 20 ft. tall cedars killed by fire, all reduced to a red needle stage. The Nature Conservancy has the right idea.

I don't really know why some land managers aim to protect single species at the detriment of the entire landscape. I am reminded tonight of the mind-numbing diatribe the land manager at Illinois' rich, biodiverse La Rue Pine Hills gave recently. "We only have this small population of pine trees, so we're not going to burn them because we don't want to damage them." With this mentality, the manager will no longer see pine regeneration. His upland pine woodland is fire dependent. I audibly sighed when I heard this. In some circles, fire is still the enemy of trees. I happen to run in the circles where these arcane ideas are ridiculed.

Monday, June 02, 2008

2008 French Open

I think I deserve a whole mess of gold stars for my avoidance of the French Open this past week. I used to sign up to have ESPN match updates delivered to my cell phone, names and scores signified not by a ringtone but by the dulcet tunes of an orchard oriole. I miss a lot of work during Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and, usually, the French Open. Call it dedication to my profession, or the desire to acquire gold paper stars for my diligence. This year, I haven't followed the tournament unless I am able to watch the matches. So, this afternoon, having left work early to watch the Sharapova-Safina match, we sidled up to the only other person at Flat Branch, my summer tennis coach, Andy.

After I sang praises of Sharapova, her grace, her strength, her capability on grass and clay, her smooth backhand sluice, he muttered that she wasn't going to make it to the finals. I thought he was being prescient, considering the esteemed Sharapova was closing in on the second set. "It's like watching a tragedy," he says, explaining that he's known the outcome of the match since early this morning and, like a tragedy, you know what's going to happen. I don't like seeing scores, I just like watching the progress. Hence, hours camped out in front of our computer screen watching Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and even more hours at my local watering hole with ESPN.

Over a fine Irish Ale, Andy talked about how terrible American tennis is right now. I've ranted about it before, how Americans play a power game and ignore the net, how they don't understand the ball, but slam it at their opponents. American tennis is really a paradigm for our foreign policy and modern Hollywood film: inconsiderate, fast, hard, lacking intellectualism, ultimately failing. I think the real problem is that Americans are trained to play a power game and, moreover, seldom have access to clay and grass courts (just 6 months ago, Columbia lost its only clay courts to a soccer field, "because you can fit more people on a soccer field"). American players lack finesse, really. In the case of the Williams' sisters, their pursuit of financial reward has clearly impacted their game. Yes, Americans.

Alyssa and I learned on clay. We played very well on clay, in fact. It's a deliberate, slow surface, great on the ankles and knees, forgiving, even. I think I remember the sweltering June day when, at the ages of 10 and 12 Alyssa and I first walked up to LSU to play on the crummy hard courts. I sent the ball over the fence, into a soccer field, unaware that the bounce would be so dramatically different. Both of us laughed, and then we adapted, practicing for hours against a brick wall on a concrete surface. Clay's great. More people should play on it. If they did, we might actually have a professional tennis player reaching the semifinals this week. Read here why Rafa Nadal is so fantastic on clay. He doesn't just play on it, he drinks it.